The Importance of Staff Communication during the COVID-19 Pandemic

As most of our patients and clients know, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Aunt Martha’s had embraced the slogan, “Where Science Meets Heart,” because we care so much about treating the whole person and coordinating their care among medical, social services, and behavioral health teams. That heartfelt mission resonated internally when President & CEO Raul Garza talked with empathy and transparency about the challenges ahead for the community healthcare industry and our organization, in particular, during a webinar on Friday, April 3rd that was watched by nearly 600 of the nearly 800 people on our staff. He spoke to our hearts with concern about our physical and emotional welfare as he presented the facts based on the latest information at hand.  Staff response to the webinar was overwhelming, with Mr. Garza hearing directly from approximately 15% of staff working on the front lines.

“It [the webinar] was informative and inspirational. It made me feel connected in spite of my physical absence. Thank you for taking the time to help us understand how Aunt Martha’s and other community health centers have been impacted by this current crisis. And thank you for making sure to take care of those who work at this agency as best you can,” commented Senior Grants Writer Gwen Talley.

Recent news articles shared by Mr. Garza during the webinar was sobering. Nearly a third of community health centers in Illinois could potentially close clinics down as the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing takes their toll. Some centers are even seeing a 70% drop in the number of patients requesting services, according to Jordan Powell, the CEO of the Illinois Primary Health Care Association, which includes 51 Federally Qualified Health Centers in Illinois, including Aunt Martha’s, and represents 400 clinics statewide. Fortunately, Aunt Martha’s hasn’t seen the type of drop-off in patient activity as other centers. In fact, Aunt Martha’s only saw a 15% decrease in patient volume over the course of the first three weeks of the pandemic, of which at least 5% was attributed to the suspension on non-emergent dental services based on a recommendation from the CDC.  Additionally, Aunt Martha’s was able to build upon its more than 13 years of tele-psychiatry experience to quickly expand integrated telehealth services.  Since the expansion of telehealth across the Aunt Martha’s network over the past week, we have been able to mitigate nearly all of the previous decrease in patient volume.

“My role as a CEO is to think about what we are doing today to protect our staff. And then what are we doing to protect their jobs? What are we doing tomorrow? What about six months or a year down the road? I find myself constantly pivoting to each one of those big buckets and making sure that every one of those is being given a lot of thought and planning,” said Mr. Garza during the webinar. He and other members of the Aunt Martha’s executive leadership team also answered specific staff questions about safety, personal protection equipment, internal communication, testing, and benefits.

We’ve always maintained a healthy and safe environment at Aunt Martha’s locations. Still, lately, we’re becoming more strategic and creative in securing enough personal protection equipment, such as N95 masks, given the increased demand across the healthcare industry. Our administrative staff is passionately reaching out to a variety of organizations for supplies, including art schools, trade schools, community groups, associations, business municipalities, and manufacturing and industrial companies. Not to mention, at all of our locations, we’re regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces throughout the day, sanitizing, and deep cleaning overnight (See COVID-19 Resource Center), as well as taking other precautions to minimize exposure and practice social distancing. With all of this determined and diligent effort, the camaraderie around helping us help others is palpable in the staff’s response to the webinar.

“I want to say that on behalf of the Chicago Heights PEDS team, thank you [Raul Garza] for the visit to our clinic. Personally, it made me look at Aunt Martha’s totally different. This webinar really hit home, and it showed a different side to the leadership team, and for that, I want to say THANK YOU! You all are THE REAL MVP! Thank you for the countless hours and the restless days that you’ve encountered and the ones that are on the way,” commented LaKrizzia Henry, Lead Medical Assistant of the Chicago Heights Pediatric Center.

Aunt Martha’s has made a commitment to its staff to continue communicating in a consistent, comprehensive manner throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  We understand that this is the only way we can assure our staff that we support them and that we will continue to do whatever we can to keep them safe.  We believe that our proactive, inclusive communications and the supports we provide to our staff are some of the reasons that Aunt Martha’s has had minimal call-offs (only 4-5% on average) over the past several weeks.   

For the latest updates from the leadership team on what we’re doing to keep our staff, patients, and clients safe, we encourage you to check out our COVID-19 Resource Center.